Thursday, September 13, 2007

Impoverishment: When Languages Die

During my month-long summer “break” – in which I traveled to the U.S., visited friends and relatives, worked on my research, did translation and editing – I read around 30 books, and When Languages Die by K. David Harrison was definitely one of my favorites. Before the summer, I said I wanted to get a hold of this book, and I am so glad I did.

Dr. Harrison is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and researches some of the world’s endangered languages, and he also co-founded
the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. In his fascinating book, which discusses, among other languages, Yakut, !Xoon, O’oodham, Vilela, Nggela, and Itza Mayan, Dr. Harrison writes that in 2001, 6912 languages were spoken in the world, but just one hundred years later, half will likely be gone. “The top 10 biggest languages have hundreds of millions of speakers each, accounting for just over 50 percent of humans...The smallest half of the world’s languages–consisting of more than 3,500 languages–are spoken by a mere 0.2 percent of the global population.” So why should we care about that?

When a language dies, a unique knowledge system is lost, as is a distinct culture, and also grammar patterns, which show how people think and process information. All of this is not only interesting in and of itself, but it is also useful and important information that helps us understand the world and what it means to be a human in it. Dr. Harrison explicates, “We have seen at least three compelling reasons to safeguard and document vanishing languages. First is the fact that our human knowledge base is rapidly eroding. Most of what humans have learned over the millennia about how to thrive on this planet is encapsulated in threatened languages. If we let them slip away, we may compromise our very ability to survive as our ballooning human population strains earth’s ecosystems. A second reason is our rich patrimony of human cultural heritage, including myth and belief systems, wisdom, poetry, songs, and epic tales. Allowing our own history to be erased, we condemn ourselves to a cultural amnesia that may undermine our sense of purpose and our ability to live in peace with diverse peoples. A third reason is the great puzzle of human cognition, and our ability to understand how the mind organizes and processes information. Much of the human mind is still a black box. We cannot discern its inner workings–and we can often only know its thoughts by what comes out of it in the form of speech. Obscure languages hold at least some of the keys to unlocking the mind. For all these reasons, and with the possibility of dire consequences for failures, documenting endangered languages while they may still be heard, and revitalizing tongues that still may be viable, must be viewed as the greatest conservation challenge of our generation.”

Dr. Harrison goes on to give examples of what is unique and interesting about various languages, and what knowledge can be lost when the languages die. For example, some reindeer-herding peoples, such as the Saami in Scandinavia or the Tofa in Siberia, have detailed taxonomies for reindeer. “Döngür” is a Tofa word “male domesticated reindeer in its third year and first mating season, but not ready for mating”, but now that most Tofa people speak Russian, they have to use a long phrase, like the English translation above, to describe what previously only took one word, and that must both be more time-consuming as well as eventually lead to diminished reindeer knowledge.

A similar taxonomy-based example is from the Ifugao language, which “has an intricate vocabulary of rice technology. Their language has 27 different names for pottery vessels for storing rice wine, 30 names for types of woven baskets used to carry foods, and 130 phrases describing in detail payments made for the use of rice pond fields. It has many expressive words like “tiwātiw,” a verb meaning to frighten animals, birds or chickens away from drying rice.” Clearly, each language offers information or ideas that is helpful to its culture.

Another aspect of knowledge loss that Dr. Harrison discusses is different kinds of time-keeping. He says that more languages have no notion of the concept of a week. Instead of the system we take for granted, other cultures have ecological, lunar, or arbitrary time systems, or combinations thereof. “Natural calendar lore served as a bond firmly connecting humankind to the natural world; this bond weakens when languages die.”

Some people think that it doesn’t matter if we lose such knowledge as a word for a three-year-old male reindeer or the Tuvan word “chyzyr-chyzyr,” which Dr. Harrison defines as “the sound of the tree tops moving, swaying, cracking, or snapping as a result of bears marking trees by clawing at them and by scratching their backs up against them.” Some people say that since these kinds of words are so situational, so environment-based, cultures must not need them anymore if they are no longer using them. In other words, people find a way of saying what they want and need to say, even if they have to use a long way around, like the Tofa people now speaking Russian. But even if you believe that, it isn’t just specific words like this that disappear; cultures, ideas, information, and “unique philosophical viewpoint[s]” vanish, too.

Dr. Harrison writes, “As languages fall out of use into forgetfulness, entire genres of oral tradition–stories, songs, and epics–rapidly approach extinction. Only a small fraction have ever been recorded or set down in books. And the tales captured in books, when no longer spoken, will exist as mere shadows of a once vibrant tradition. We stand to lose volumes: entire worldviews, religious beliefs, creation myths, observations about life, technologies for how to domesticate animals and cultivate plans, histories of migration and settlement, and collective wisdom. And we will lose insight into how humans fine-tune memory to preserve and transmit epic tales.”

And studying small, endangered languages and not just the big ones teaches us about how humans think. “Imagine a zoologist describing mammals by looking only at the top hundred most common ones. It would be easier to examine dogs and cats and cows and rabbits, all of which are composed of the same building blocks as other mammals. But if we did, we would never know that a mammal could swim (whales), fly (bats), lay eggs (echidna), use tools (sea otters and orangutans), or have an inflatable balloon growing from its head (male hooded seal). Ignorance of unusual mammals would impoverish our notion of what mammals could be. It is precisely the weird and wonderful exceptions that afford us a full view of the possibilities.”

Dr. Harrison frequently uses the word “impoverish” in his book, and it perfectly captures what happens when languages die.


Anonymous said...

B.J. --Thanks for your interest and for this very enthusiastic synopsis / review of my book.

It's not all as bleak as the death metaphor may imply, some languages do get revitalized. (A good book on this topic is Grenoble & Whaley's "Saving Languages"). That seems to be happening now with Welsh. I hope the arguments I presented in my book about loss and impoverishment will help in some small way to motivate people towards revitalization of small languages.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Dr. Harrison!
I see the book you mentioned is available at my university library, so I am sure you can guess who is off to the library today!
As for Welsh, my experience down here in the south of Wales has been that people feel it is a pointless burden to be required to study Welsh (and/or to be required to show some Welsh competence when applying for a job) and also a waste of money to have all signs, documents, etc. in both Welsh and English. But I understand that the feelings are different in the north of Wales and also in some small villages in the south. So the government is paying to revitalize the language, but do people really want that?

Best wishes,